How the Lincoln Yards Development Could Impact Chicago Transportation

Rendering of Lincoln Yards. Image: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill/Sterling Bay
Rendering of Lincoln Yards. Image: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill/Sterling Bay

The Lincoln Yards mega-development is nearly a done deal after a vote yesterday by City Council’s Zoning Committee, which approved the $6 billion development on 55 acres of land along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Developer Sterling Bay is counting on a $900 million tax-increment financing subsidy, which will go before the city’s Finance Committee for approval on Monday, after which it would go before the full Council for a final vote on Wednesday, March 13. 

In light of this news, it’s especially important to take a look at the potential impacts of Lincoln Yards on Chicago’s transportation network. Last month Jacob Peters analyzed the issue as part of a series on Lincoln Yards he wrote for Chicago Cityscape, Streetsblog Chicago cofounder Steven Vance’s development-tracking website, syndicated here with permission from Jacob and Steven.

Note that some of the stats about Lincoln Yards mentioned in this article may have changed somewhat since the latest plans reduced the height of the tallest buildings from 800 to 600 feet and capped the total size of new buildings at 14.5 million square feet. -JG

The Lincoln Yards proposal is a major redevelopment of industrial land that had few workers on such a large site, relatively little car traffic, and nobody living nearby. That will all change as 6,000 new residences and tens of thousands of new jobs are planned to land on the site and nearby. The issue is that there isn’t enough transportation infrastructure to get them there.

My previous article identified small areas in Chicago that have a similar density, of both residents and jobs, to the Lincoln Yards and the surrounding area. We showed that the proposal isn’t that dense, and that much of Chicago’s North Side was denser.

Needs more transit

A big difference, however, is that every one of those comparison areas has more transit service than currently serves the Lincoln Yards and surrounding area. (Our “study area” is bounded by Webster, Clybourn, North, and the Kennedy Expressway.)

Current CTA and Metra passenger capacity during rush hour in three different areas (calculated using public provided schedules and estimated rolling stock capacity) show the need for more transit in Lincoln Yards to match what’s available in the most comparable jobs+population area of “West River North”.

Those comparable areas also have more transit service than the study area will have even if a proposed new transitway ends up carrying as many passengers as the Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles, the highest-performing bus transitway in the United States [1]. The proposed water taxi stops and the transitway are both downtown-centric, and will not measurably improve access to the site from a majority of the city in a way similar to the Loop-adjacent areas identified in the last article.

Transit nerds should also open and read the footnotes. There is a much larger discussion about specific transit alternatives and routes that could be created to integrate the Lincoln Yards and environs into the CTA ‘L’ network.

The City of Chicago proposed a “transitway” from Lincoln Yards and Goose Island to downtown. It probably won’t be enough. North Branch Framework Plan
The City of Chicago proposed a “transitway” from Lincoln Yards and Goose Island to downtown. It probably won’t be enough. Image: North Branch Framework Plan

If investments were made to increase the amount of service from across the region to the Lincoln Yards site, it would lessen the impact of housing cost increases on the surrounding neighborhoods [2], while simultaneously bringing residents closer to new amenities.

The size or scope of a development in a low-density area adjacent to higher density areas only becomes problematic when the transportation infrastructure improvements don’t match the scale of development that is being proposed.

An earlier version of the Lincoln Yards proposal placed a stadium on the south half of the development, to which the Chicago Department of Transportation and 2nd Ward alderman Brian Hopkins ascribed much of the traffic demand.

Now that the stadium has been eliminated, however, the peak demand for transportation to and from the site doesn’t change by much. Why? The stadium’s area was replaced with 1,500 more residences [3]. What changed is how and when people make trips into and out of Lincoln Yards. The additional units could encourage more car ownership — and thus more traffic — among Lincoln Yards residents, since the 6,158 proposed parking spaces will more than double the garage parking within 1/4 mile of the study area [4].

Having an easy place to store a car overnight discourages a commuter from using a bus — especially when the only bus improvements being made are to and from downtown and not to any other job centers.

All that parking on the site could create an awful situation: One commuter drives out of the garage in the morning to get to work elsewhere, while another commute drives into the garage in the morning to work at Lincoln Yards [5]. While it’s great for the garage operator to have a full garage 24 hours a day, it’s bad for the environment, shoppers, walkers, and bicyclists.

These commute patterns will make the entire development more car dependent, especially since the number of vehicular crossings of the river in the area will be quadrupling.

More roads = more traffic

Hopkins and other officials have claimed that the new bridges and new streets (creating a new increase in road capacity) will “reduce congestion.” This is simply false due to the fundamental law of traffic congestion, that any new road capacity will be filled with equivalent car capacity within a few years.

These streets will see induced demand from the new or expanded bridges over the Chicago River.
These streets will see induced demand from the new or expanded bridges over the Chicago River.

These new river crossings will have an indirect on a far wider area than if no new road capacity was being added and the developer and their new tenants aggressively shifted as many new trips as possible to public transit. Privately-operated shuttle buses with infrequent, low capacity service, used only by office workers during rush hour, would not be a viable solution to the transportation needs of Lincoln Yards. The only scenario in which this new network of vehicular river crossings would not increase the congestion that neighbors are complaining about would be if officials address the morphing travel demands of the city in a holistic manner that is heavily bike- and transit- focused.

Supporting a shift to sustainable modes of transportation will require improvements that are done in phases that match the increasing demands created by the upcoming phases of industrial redevelopment. It cannot focus solely on the North Branch Corridor, solely on trips to and from downtown, or solely on improvements to one mode of travel.

CTA produced this map that shows where and how they’re constrained in adding more capacity.
CTA produced this map that shows where and how it’s constrained in adding more capacity.

Fortunately, the Lincoln Yards “Planned Development” document requires Sterling Bay to conduct new traffic studies and design a set of new transportation improvements be approved by the Chicago Department of Transportation before any subsequent phase is completed [6].

Chicagoans need to be the ones pushing to make sure that those phases of improvements are not primarily car-centric, and that they contribute to citywide public transit connectivity and capacity increases.

Think beyond the transitway

The Active Transportation Alliance has already taken the first step, but we need a comprehensive plan that resolves deficiencies in CTA’s network of bus and ‘L’ routes. District plans like the North Branch Framework Plan and the Central Area Plan are necessary, but they don’t knit together regional solutions to the shifting commute patterns that they help facilitate [7].

The Loop elevated — where five lines operate — is the biggest primary constraint of the CTA’s train capacity. This was identified in the 2017 CTA System-Wide Rail Capacity Study and it remains unaddressed — this means that the branches that serve the Loop elevated can no longer add additional trains during rush hour. Up until 1964, this issue was dealt with by additional rush hour trains that terminated at stub stations just outside of the physical Loop. The former Chicago Department of Subways and Superhighways addressed these constraints by opening the Dearborn and State Street subways, which allowed riders headed to points on the opposite side of downtown to bypass the constrained Loop elevated.[8]

Other cities in North America are dealing with similar issues and addressed capacity constraints on a central “trunk,” similar to the Loop elevated, by building relief lines that add passenger capacity in the central. Look to the Los Angeles’ Regional Connector, San Francisco’s Central Subway, and Dallas’s D2 Subway. These are more like when Chicago built the Dearborn and State Street subways, but they show that increased transit use requires increased capacity on outer branch lines.

(left) Los Angeles’ Regional Connector; (center) San Francisco’s Central Subway; (right) Dallas’s D2 Subway
(left) Los Angeles’ Regional Connector; (center) San Francisco’s Central Subway; (right) Dallas’s D2 Subway

The first proposal that comes to mind is the Circle Line. Yes, the Circle Line would provide connections between places that are outside the Loop. However, if it actually operated as a circle, it would worsen frequency on the outer branches of the Red Line [9].

Ten years ago, the CTA crafted some ideas for a north-south train route.
Ten years ago, the CTA crafted some ideas for a north-south train route.

Instead, it is important to look at this slide from the 2009 Circle Line Alternatives Analysis Study. Instead of running trains through the most constrained portion of the system, the CTA considered running trains directly through the area that is currently seeing so much growth.

It would have been great to have continued developing those concepts so that we would be shovel-ready today with a project to address the new jobs that are outside of downtown, but the bright side is that we can envision a route that serves multiple purposes [10].

The chart shows that transit service could increase if we were aggressive about expanding transit (via existing and new routes) in tandem with building new office towers. See footnote 11.

Long term, a north-south route on the near west side would serve the 50,000 jobs that might be generated in the North Branch Corridor (Lincoln Yards + environs) better than a proposed “transitway” alone between Lincoln Yards and the Loop.

We’ve reorganized the ‘L’ network twice before: Connecting the lines with a consolidated Loop in 1897, and adding cross city capacity via the subways in the 1940s. Now is the time to take advantage of the money and momentum of large redevelopment projects — including The 78 and the Burnham Lakefront [11] — to reorganize our transit system for a future of citywide growth.

  • planetshwoop

    Would any capacity be created merging the Brown and Orange lines, ie you could go straight from Kimball to Midway?

    The lack of a Circle Line is such a problem. I think it is a much bigger priority over a red line extension.

  • rduke

    I feel like so much of this could be solved by axing the parking. Put just enough to allow for a few workers/residents to arrive and leave by car, enough for ADA access, and let the rest of the people who want to live or work there *pay* for the parking (because there will be so little). Cut it by 90% and your congestion worries disappear. The only people who would want to live here already are capable of living car free, and the rest either get a free pass because they’re differently abled or rich enough to afford to rent a space.

    This purposefully creates the political capital to actually improve transit access as a primary cause, not a secondary “well I guess we can do something for transit, after we blow our wad on fattening up the roads with more general use lanes” cause.

    Literally no one who wants to live in a luxury high rise is going to give up their car unless they have to pay out the ass for parking and sit in traffic as they watch cyclists and busses blow by them at twice their average speed.

    I’m so sick and tired of this namby pamby weak wristed crap when it comes to curbing our car use as a society. It’s an addiction, and you don’t curb your addiction by keeping a pack of nicotine gum at the bottom of your bag on top of a carton of smokes. The implicit assumption is STILL that people are going to arrive to Lincoln Yards by personal vehicle no matter what. When you assume that, you induce it.

  • 1976boy

    I totally agree. There was a study done a while back that showed that parking garages in central Chicago were about 30-40% empty all the time. Chicago is better than a lot of other cities in that it does not require obscene amounts of parking, but what is built is still more than is needed.

  • kastigar

    There are already several stops in the downtown loop to transfer easily from the Orange Line to the Brown Line. I’ve taken it both ways from Albany Park to Midway Airport.

    The Orange line runs clockwise and the Brown Line runs anti-clockwise; is this too confusing or hard to understand?

  • planetshwoop

    No, that’s not what I meant. Of course it is easy to transfer.

    If one of the constraints is capacity of trains through the Loop, I was suggesting that if the Orange and Brown were combined, it would reduce slightly the number of stops in the Loop and increase capacity slightly.


    Run the Brown-Orange straight down wells connecting with the existing tracks in Chinatown. Also, grade separate where the tracks cross downtown and relocate transfer stations to these points.


    I agree with your general sentiment but theres no need to throw in “namby pamby wreak wristed” as it can be misconstrued as a homophobic dog whistle.


    The success of Lincoln Yards will be largely from its segregation from the rest of the city, allowing it to become a mall-within-the-city. There is a reason that Ogden Avenue and its streetcars where cut off from Lincoln Park, and a reason why this development is moving forward and others on the South Side are not. An honest effort at building not just a simulacrum of city life depends on connecting rapid transit via a Circle Line type arrangement- please do not forget the abandoned or misused rail lines on the south side that could tie into the circle (those maps miss vital connections via the St Charles Air Line and/or the old Kenwood and Stockyards branches)

  • LG

    While some apartment dwellers may forego cars, high end condominium owners will mostly want at least one parking space. Condominiums at the higher end of the market are much less marketable without parking.

  • Ray Tylicki

    With all the freight railroad yards be rezoned for development how is Chicago going to still be a railroad cargo center?


    Is it a northern hemisphere clock you are using or southern hemisphere? Why are you anti-clock? I think that not very wise.

  • Austin Busch

    I think a more helpful solution, once the Brown Line bypass opens, may be pushing the purple line express into the State Street subway, and running it to either Midway (double the Orange) or Cottage Grove (match the east 63rd brach capacity). The outer loop has more capacity than the inner loop, and the Brown currently runs on the outer loop.

    With the Brown Line overpass, there will be far fewer concerns about northbound morning crossings at Clark Junction, and so the number of runs for the Brown line will be increased as much as possible. A speedier return to Kimball may help with the rail-yard capacity constraint, which is the main reason for the current Brownge.

  • Austin Busch

    I think the best possible solution for the transitway is a gondola project. If the developments along the river are centrally focused for pedestrians, there will not need to be more than 2 interim stops between Lincoln Yard and Union Station. It will be fast to build, and make river crossing easy. It will also attract the kind of customers Sterling Bay is after, so they may be more willing to fund it.

    Beyond that, the capacity is higher than BRT. Current urban gondola lines can carry up to 3,000 passengers/hour, a slight increase over a BRT line’s 2,700 passengers/hour. In addition, a gondola is elevated, and so not subject to traffic at the inevitable grade crossings in the area. Given the elevation, a multi-use path could be included at ground level, adding significant biking capacity and better connecting the Loop to the 606.

    A busway could make sense if it was used for multiple thru-routes, after Pittsburgh and Ottawa models, but I don’t think the East-West cross streets are planning to terminate at the Union Station depot.

  • Dennis McClendon

    The various central-city yards were all abandoned decades ago, and aren’t served by mainline railroads. No Chicago-area railyard has been abandoned since the Staggers Act.

  • Anne A

    Intermodal freight yards are growing in outlying neighborhoods and suburbs (such as the Norfolk Southern expansion in Englewood).

  • Carter O’Brien

    The importance of a Circle Line to connect all of the L lines within the city is just that. It’s not simply about getting from one point on the perimeter to another one, although removing the need to go into the Loop only to go out of it an opposing direction would obviously ease stress on that bottleneck.

    The bigger picture is there’s a lot of land all over the NW, West and SW Sides that are good candidates for density, development, employment centers, etc., but they are held back by reliance on driving/the bus. I have in-laws who live at Belmont & Central, and the amount of time it takes to get there from our place at Belmont & Kimball (or back) during rush hour or a summer Saturday is freaking staggering. There’s a reason real estate by L stops carries a premium. It’s not an imaginary or speculative value-add.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Umm… what is a “transitway?” That term is confoundily vague. Why don’t any maps show existing east-west (and other existing transit) routes / infrastructure? A transitway needs to be planned / considered as part of a “network.”


    A “transitway” will allow private corporate buses to pick up passengers at the commuter stations downtown and whisk them traffic free up to New Naperville. For reference, see the “busway” that connects McCormick Place to Millennium Park- all private buses and black SUVs.


    Gondola is for tourists. There are two below grade through tracks along the west side of the river, east of union station, owned by amtrak. They will become the transitway, ideally a CTA line, but second choice BRT. Attracting the “kind of customers Sterling Bay is after?”- wow if thats not thinly veiled race and class-ism (they go together in this town), i dont know what is.

  • paulrandall

    I don’t suppose there is any way that the transitway could continue north along the river to connect with the Western BRT?

  • Michael J. Erickson

    “The only scenario in which this new network of vehicular river crossings would not increase the congestion that neighbors are complaining about would be if officials address the morphing travel demands of the city in a holistic manner that is heavily bike- and transit- focused.” The only scenario…that won’t increase congestion…is heavily bike and [electric] transit-focused.

    This simple fact is true here and at any location in the region you care to name.

    This is the issue. What we spend our money on is way more important than on how much we spend or where we get it from. If they won’t spend it on projects and programs that makes Illinois’ Green New Deal a reality, by making big mode share shifts from cars to bikes, than no new money should be forthcoming.

    IDOT and CMAP must dismantle the Year 2050 Regionally Significant Projects (RSP) program, rid it of the piles of cash for failed highway expansions, for failed regional arterial streets, or for more polluting diesel fueled commuter and freight train rehabs and expansions. If not, then just say no to any spending at all. We should not be cooperating with the current failed system!